Let’s start with the basics:
Grilling and barbecuing are not the same. In casual conversation, this distinction doesn’t matter much. “We’re having a barbecue!” is a fine way to describe your burgers-and-dogs cookout. But if you’re talking about technique—and this story is all about the essentials of live-fire cooking—the definitions matter.
Grilling is a way of cooking smaller cuts of meat such as burgers and chicken thighs (or vegetables or fruit or pizzas) quickly and directly over high heat. Barbecue is a “low and slow” approach for larger cuts such as pork shoulder, brisket, and ribs. To barbecue is to turn tough cuts tender through long applications of time and heat, breaking down connective tissue, rendering fat. Grilling is a way of cooking already-tender foods while searing the outside to crispy browned deliciousness.
Grilling is about making dinner. Barbecue is a labor of love.
Andy Husbands knows both the obsessive love and the day-to-day craft of grilling and barbecue. He earned his stripes in the early 1990s cooking over live fire in the kitchen of East Coast Grill, Chris Schlesinger’s groundbreaking restaurant in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Later he opened Tremont 647 and Sister Sorel in Boston, and, most recently, the Smoke Shop in Cambridge’s Kendall Square. In 2007 his barbecue team, IQue, took first place out of 510 teams in the brisket category at the American Royal barbecue competition, and three years later IQue became the first New England team to win the Jack Daniel’s World Championship Invitational in Lynchburg, Tennessee. But Husbands is quick to credit his team leader, Chris Hart, saying that “his relentless practicing, research, and tenacity is the reason for our success.” Husbands shares some of his and Hart’s combined wisdom in a new cookbook, his fifth, called Pitmaster: Recipes, Techniques, and Barbecue Wisdom (Fair Winds Press, 2017).
Even without “relentless practicing,” you can still become a deft backyard cook by understanding the principles of live-fire cooking. For instance, cook smaller, thinner things for less time and at a higher heat than you would when cooking, say, a whole chicken. “Grilling is inherently about speed,” Husbands says. “Barbecue is about time. You can’t cook over high heat for more than two to three minutes per side or it’s going to burn. So that’s burgers, steaks, and boneless chicken thighs. By the time a bone-in chicken thigh center would cook through on high heat, it’ll be burned on the outside.”
We asked Husbands to demonstrate these basic principles as he prepared home cook–friendly recipes for meat and vegetable dishes, each chosen to illustrate a different technique. But there’s one line on which he holds firm: the benefits of charcoal grilling over gas. “Everybody wants to make really good food, which is fantastic,” he says. “And here they have this opportunity to use live fire and develop really great flavors, and they use a gas grill because it’s easier. But grilling over charcoal brings your food from good to great.” Why? “Charcoal burns hotter than propane,” he says. “With both grilling and barbecue, you’re caramelizing the amino acids in your meat, and that happens better and faster with charcoal or hardwood.” Not to mention it lends the flavor of that particular kind of smoke.
And it doesn’t have to be difficult, Husbands says. “Once a week, I go out and clean my grill. If you have a chimney to light the coals, which is the best way, you’re talking about 10 minutes. [Ed. note: In our experience, it’s closer to 15 to 20 minutes.] And honestly, if you’re going to heat a gas grill, that’s going to take five to 10 minutes. Plus, you need time to prep your ingredients. It’s OK to have a drink and relax for a second.”
Still, we can’t deny the appeal of being able to cook with the turn of a knob, so we’ve provided specific instructions for both gas and charcoal for each of the following recipes. Review “Setting Up the Grill | Charcoal Grilling Tips” before starting to ensure you’ve got the perfect grilling temperature.